TV Networks Need More Shows That

New fall offerings don’t suggest broadcasters have gotten the memo on amending their marching orders

“We’re in the passion-engagement game,” HBO Entertainment chief Michael Lombardo told TV critics last month, describing the not-ratings-driven nature of the pay service’s mission. And while that might sound like a lofty characterization, it nicely captures what’s become a central ingredient in the media stew — and an area where the broadcast networks are operating at a serious deficit.

Among the central shifts in the TV landscape is the ability to make programs profitable because a small but loyal audience will pay for them via one platform or another. Although the major networks face a delicate balancing act between achieving what still approximates mass appeal and inspiring I’ll-pay-for-it ardor among the passionate few, their new fall offerings don’t suggest they’ve fully gotten the memo on amending their marching orders.

Not that this question of volume vs. engagement is new. In a 1998 article pondering the evolution from broadcasting toward narrowcasting, producer John Wells — who at the time was attracting 30 million people to watch “ER” every Thursday — suggested the key for any TV program looking ahead must be that “people are going to be desperately unhappy if it’s not on the air. … It can be a relatively limited core, but if you’ve identified it, and you can sell it to advertisers, that’s a successful series.”

The main impediment to that mindset, he added, was the networks, because to embrace such a view would be “an admission of failure. … It’s not in anybody’s best business interests to yet pronounce (the model) dead.”

Wells wasn’t alone in reaching this conclusion around that time. A year earlier, the late Brandon Tartikoff wrote an op-ed piece saying, among other things, “Every show should be someone’s favorite show” — indicating “least objectionable programming” was no longer a viable approach.

Frankly, broadcasting as a concept has proved more durable than naysayers imagined. The mass audiences drawn by shows like “NCIS” — despite being lightly regarded by the critical intelligentsia — suggest the sky that appeared to be falling back in the ’90s hasn’t yet crashed.

Such successes have allowed broadcasters to downplay their diminishing role at the Emmys, and dismiss critics as being out of touch. Indeed, former NBC chief Don Ohlmeyer once said TV reviewers have the usefulness of “teats on a bull.”

There’s some truth in that, to the extent scribes watch too much TV to get overly excited by the tried and true. Yet these days, they do provide legitimate surrogates for the most passionate and engaged viewers — precisely the contingent powering HBO, Showtime and now Netflix’s originals by forking over hard-earned cash.

Tellingly, a TV critics panel (including yours truly) at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences on Aug. 20 didn’t exhibit much enthusiasm for this fall’s new batch of network series. If that’s an old song, the collective yawn nevertheless represents a potential shortcoming in terms of where programmers need to be heading.

As the CBS-Time Warner Cable carriage stando has illustrated, the notion of “free TV” no longer really applies to broadcasters. And when networks find themselves compelled to take out full-page ads urging consumers to raise hell with a distributor, they should realize people won’t pick up the phone because of loyalty to a logo, but rather because they don’t want to miss NFL football or “The Big Bang Theory.”

Lord knows, it’s easy to misread and overestimate the influence of the passionate few — what I’ve called in the past “the Comic-Con false positive.” In today’s world where chat rooms provide comfort and company to even the smallest cliques, even a series like Showtime’s “The Borgias” can birth an elaborate “save our show” campaign, despite deserving neither a mass audience nor an especially loyal one.

Unbridled enthusiasm is great for the ego, but its utility doesn’t count for much when it’s just a couple of lonely people in separate rooms wearing “Borgias or Bust” T-shirts.

Admittedly, it’s not entirely fair that broadcasters alone should be expected to straddle these seemingly contradictory roles — to fill the role of big retail chain and, simultaneously, command the same devotion as a high-end specialty store.

Yet in this particular passion play, that’s their cross to bear.

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